A comprehensive history of the PC

32-bit OS Wars

There’s no doubt that Windows is synonymous with the PC. 

Ask most people what runs on a PC and that’s what they’re going to say. It’s not surprising because, as we’ll see, the “WinTel” conglomeration releases updates of processors and software practically in lock-step. 

But then why wouldn’t it? New software features require faster hardware, and faster hardware requires more demanding software to drive upgrades. It’s a virtuous consumer cycle. 

Yet while Microsoft was embracing and extending its software range, there was another project getting off the ground. It started off from the humble beginnings of running a student’s i386 PC, eventually going on to power the fastest computers on the planet. 

But how could a ragtag collection of developers that included a Finnish student and some Californian academic hippies create an ecosystem that would challenge Microsoft? 

Let’s find out!

We’ll be discussing the major changes in the consumer and business world here, but we have the timeline at the end of the article with Linux and open source developments, so you can see how it all matches up.

The first versions of Windows were unsuccessful, but with 1990’s Windows 3.0, the PC desktop was seen as a viable alternative to the Macintosh and Amiga. Windows 3.0 had a new interface, “multitasking” abilities, and mouse-driven productivity suites that freed users from the command line.

Meanwhile, IBM’s OS/2 had been trying to establish itself as the respectable GUI for corporate America. By 1990, the alliance between IBM and Microsoft had essentially finished, with the two becoming rivals.

Although newer versions of OS/2 would be more advanced, for now Microsoft had the technological advantage. IBM was still hampered by 286 machines, keeping OS/2 primarily 16-bit and thus unable to make use of the 386’s advanced features.

April 1992 finally saw OS/2 become 32-bit. In most ways, it was superior, with extensions to DOS, and Windows 3.x support in a stable environment. 

But while Windows targeted clone machines, OS/2 targeted IBM hardware, so it couldn’t run on many clones where Windows ran perfectly. Furthermore, while IBM sold OS/2 as a separate product, Microsoft bundled Windows with new PCs.

Microsoft’s dominance started with Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in August 1993. It had new 32-bit capabilities and proper networking. 

It devoured the business space, and 3.11 would be the environment many people grew up with. Around this time Debian and Slackware are released.

The multimedia age

In the mid-90s, every PC had a soundcard, a CD-ROM drive and a tinny set of multimedia speakers. CD-ROM’s 650MB of storage made possible more expansive gaming, with video cut-scenes and CD-audio soundtracks. Schools bought edutainment packages with archived video and interactivity.

By now, the 486 was standard. Although 386s were still functional business machines, you needed a 486 to enjoy “multimedia”. Thankfully, hardware prices fell dramatically; while 80s PCs usually had Intel CPUs, rival manufacturers were on the ascent and lowering costs. 

Although AMD CPUs were often from a previous generation to Intel’s, its chips were more efficient and enabled higher clock speeds, giving similar performance at much lower prices. 

Cyrix was making a name for itself with 486-upgrade processors, providing a cheap upgrade route for 386 owners with a new CPU in their old motherboard.

1993’s Intel Pentium brought the next generation of CPUs. Intel dropped the “86” to differentiate itself from other manufacturers, with “Pent” coming from the Greek “penta,” meaning five (implying a 586 without saying it). The Pentium gave almost twice the performance per clock cycle as the 486, but early Pentiums were only 50-66MHz. Meanwhile, AMD was pumping out insanely overclocked 486s, such as the DX4-120 running at 120MHz, nearly matching early Pentiums. AMD’s strong performance and low prices attracted manufacturers such as Acer and Compaq, whereas Cyrix’s efficient designs caught IBM’s eye, starting a partnership in 1994.

1995 saw the introduction of the ATX standard we use today, defining new mounting placements and features like automatic shutdowns. Unlike XT and AT, this change was brought by Intel instead of IBM.